November 11, 2019
by Kimberly Lucey
The bipartisan bill would designate 9-8-8 as a suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline. Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Veterans Crisis line are 10-digits, which lawmakers say is a barrier to those in crisis. "If you are in a car accident, you don't have to remember a seven-digit number to get immediate help", says National Alliance on Mental Illness' acting CEO Angela Kimball. "A mental health emergency should be no different."
The bill was introduced by four U.S. Senators, Republicans Cory Gardner of Colorado and Jerry Moran of Kansas, and Democrats Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jack Reed of Rhode Island. “This is about saving lives", says Sen. Reed. "A nationwide, three-digit number for suicide prevention and mental health crises will connect people with the specialized help they need, when they need it. Mental health care works, and this bill will help get people into care, but it’s just a first step that will require the federal government to put up real resources."
There's been a lot of work to get to this point, with the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act in 2018 pushing the process forward. That legislation directed the Federal Communications Commission and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to look into the potential for a three-digit dialing code for mental health crises. The FCC finished their report this August, recommending the use of a three-digit line, specifically the number 9-8-8.
The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act would put that three-digit dialing code into place. It would also allow states to collect fees to make sure local call centers are able to handle an increased call volume. The FCC's report says the suicide hotline answered more than 2.2 million calls in 2018. They expect that number to double if a three-digit dialing code goes into effect, requiring $50 million to for call centers to accommodate the volume. But experts say, it's worth it.
“There is a suicide epidemic in this country, and it is disproportionately affecting at-risk populations, including our Veterans and LGBTQ youth,” says FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “Crisis call centers have been shown to save lives."
The senators backing the bill agree. "This legislation is more than smart policy that will help save lives", says Sen. Gardner. "it’s a statement that our government recognizes the crisis and is working across party lines to address it.”
“In America, we lose about 45,000 people every year to suicide, including more than 6,100 veterans, making it one of the leading causes of death in this country,” says Sen. Baldwin. “We need to do everything we can to prevent suicide and that means improving the tools we have to help people who are suffering from depression or other mental health issues."
Similar legislation has also been introduced in the House of Representatives by Democrat Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, and Republican Chris Stewart of Utah. That bill awaits a potential vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Govtrack.com expects it to move forward with bipartisan support when it is addressed. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is encouraging the committee to prioritize the legislation, and urging voters to contact their representatives in Congress to get the bill passed.
About the Author
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.